This weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals promise to be fast and furious as the final four vie for places in the decider, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
A blockbuster battle will see the Crusaders host the Blues in Christchurch on Friday while the Brumbies will fly the Australian flag when they collide with the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.
Crusaders v Blues
Friday, 16 June – 9:05
Both of these sides made a statement in last weekend’s quarter-finals, the Crusaders crushing Fijian Drua 49-8 and the Blues battering the Waratahs 41-12 to set up this mouth-watering showdown, a repeat of last year’s final, which the Crusaders won 21-7 in Auckland.
As perennial champions, the Crusaders’ pedigree is such that one automatically favours them. They have a truly remarkable track record, having won 29 straight playoff games at home since making their first home playoff appearance in 1998.
However, there’s a hint of history in the air.
Already spread thin (Sevu Reece, Joe Moody, David Havili, Cullen Grace and Sam Whitelock are all sidelined), the ‘Saders suffered more injuries that saw them having to finish last weekend’s clash with just 13 men after having used all of their substitutions. Ethan Blackadder and Zach Gallagher were doubtful for Friday’s fixture at the time of writing, though flyhalf Richie Mo’unga is available.
The Blues are in better shape and will be smelling blood in the water. They showed last weekend that they can strike from anywhere, be it their 22, after an attacking avalanche of 16 phases or from a driving maul. They also managed nine turnovers, so they don’t shy away from hard work.
The Crusaders, while limping, are so proficient in finals football and remain the favourites. Their pressure game is phenomenal and they have the psychological advantage, having followed up their win in last year’s decider by doing the double over the Aucklanders this season (34-28 away and 15-3 at home).
I do believe the Crusaders have just enough depth to get over the line at their fortress, but the Blues have a real shot at making history and are well worth backing.
Chiefs v Brumbies
Saturday, 17 June – 9:05
Unlike the Crusaders and Blues, these two teams were made to work hard for their quarter-final wins.
It wasn’t until Pita Gus Sowakula’s try with four minutes to go that the Chiefs sealed victory over the Reds (29-20) whereas the clash in Canberra came down to the very last play. Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea insists he found a blade of grass between bodies to dot down what would’ve been the match-winning try, but it’s the Brumbies who emerged 37-33 victors.
The hard-fought battle against the Reds would’ve steeled the Chiefs. As top seeds (having finished the regular season at the top of the log), it was the temperature check they needed to realise their playoff mettle. They passed the composure test, particularly in the nervous final 12 minutes to regain the lead and close out the game.
The Brumbies, in that heroic last defensive set, showed their desire and discipline but they did concede 10 penalties in all, which is problematic given Damian McKenzie’s form off the tee. They’ll also desperately miss the support of their home fans who fuelled them in those last tense moments.
No Australian team have ever won a Super Rugby playoff on New Zealand soil and the Chiefs will ensure that record remains intact.